On April 29, 2009, 31-year-old Steven Northrup was quarrelling with his 21-year-old girlfriend in a field adjacent to a housing complex in Buffalo, New York, when a gunman walked over and asked the girlfriend if she wanted him to shoot Northrup. Before she could answer, the gunman shot Northrup seven times with a semi-automatic pistol and ran off.
Police questioned two teenaged girls who were sitting in a car about 100 yards away from the shooting. One was so traumatized by what she saw that she could not speak. When a detective asked her to write down what she saw, her writing included the word “Philadelphia.” The detective assumed the girl was saying that the gunman was from Philadelphia Street, which was near the shooting.
Detectives determined that 16-year-old Jerome Thagard, who had a prior arrest on a shoplifting charge that was later dismissed, lived on Philadelphia Street not far from the scene of the murder. Police said Northrup’s girlfriend and the two girls in the car all identified Thagard as the gunman in a photographic lineup.
The following day, police arrested Thagard at Bennett High School and charged him as an adult with second-degree murder. When Thagard’s photograph was shown on television, a woman called police and said Thagard had robbed her at gunpoint the day before Northrup was killed.
Thagard went on trial in Erie County Supreme Court in January 2010. Northrup’s girlfriend and the two girls who were in the car all identified Thagard as the man dressed in a dark hooded sweatshirt who shot Northrup. Northrup’s girlfriend said the gunman asked her, “Do you want me to shoot him?” and then began firing.
Thagard did not testify or offer any alibi witnesses. On January 25, 2010, a jury convicted him of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Thagard then went on trial on the armed robbery charge. The victim admitted that Thagard only looked like the man who robbed her. Thagard’s attorney, John J. Molloy, presented evidence that the woman’s cell phone had been stolen, along with her purse, and that two calls were made from the cell phone shortly after the woman was robbed. One was to a taxi company and the other was to a known member of the 10th Street Gang, a Hispanic street gang active in the area of Northrup’s murder. Molloy tracked down the driver of the cab who responded to the call and the driver said that he picked up two Hispanic men. Thagard, who is African American, was acquitted by a judge who heard the trial without a jury.
In the summer of 2013, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Buffalo was conducting an investigation of the 10th Street Gang and learned that ballistics evidence showed that the bullets used in the shooting of Northrup and bullets recovered from two other shootings were fired from the same gun. One of the shootings occurred after Northrup was killed and Thagard was in police custody. Moreover, the gun was tied to members of the 10th Street Gang. There was no evidence that Thagard was involved in any gang activity or was associated with any members of the 10th Street Gang.
The information was passed to Buffalo police detectives and the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, which conducted a reinvestigation of Northrup’s murder. Molloy, Thagard’s defense attorney, interviewed the three eyewitnesses and all recanted their identifications of Thagard as the gunman.
Northrup’s girlfriend told Molloy that she was shown a photographic lineup and told detectives the gunman was not in the lineup. She said the detectives yelled at her and said that one other witness had identified one of the men in the lineup as the gunman. She told Molloy that she then identified the person who most looked like the gunman, and that was Thagard. Molloy also learned that when one of the girls had written down “Philadelphia” when she was questioned after the shooting, all she meant was that she and her girlfriend had driven on Philadelphia Street to get to the location where the shooting occurred—not that the gunman lived on Philadelphia Street.
The two girls who were in the car signed sworn statements saying they were pressured by detectives to select a photograph in similar lineups and they both selected Thagard because he looked most like the gunman.
Thagard told authorities that he was at home watching television with his mother at the time of the shooting and that he was on the telephone. The prosecution determined the alibi was credible. In December 2013, Molloy filed a motion to vacate Thagard’s conviction and on December 9, 2013, Thagard was released on bond.
On January 13, 2014, the Erie County District Attorney’s Office joined in the motion to vacate Thagard’s conviction and dismissed the murder charge against Thagard.
Thagard subsequently filed a claim for compensation with the New York Court of Claims.
– Maurice Possley